Is Zane Grey’s The Call of the Canyon a Great Book? A classic of elegant and instructive prose? Among “the best which has been thought and said”? A garden of ideas whose fruits populate further fields of literary wonder? Is it even a great book with no reference to capitalization? No, no, no, no, and no. But did it make me think the entire time I read? Yes.
I vaguely expected some adventure, some danger, possibly some shooting from a book by the father of the American western novel. What I got was a love story. Love stories are fine by me, but the romance didn’t interest me nearly didn’t interest nearly so much as the conflict that kept Arizona’s Romeo from New York’s Juliet until the last page: the vision of America. Whatever else I might want to deny this as possessing, it has a vision – a relentless vision that Glenn Kilbourne teaches and that Carley Burch eventually adopts.
If I had to boil the vision down to a single word, I’d have to call it “Progress.” Humans are capable of more, Grey tells us through Glenn’s words and through the narrative descriptions of the vast Arizona landscape. They can and should grow morally, intellectually, spiritually, and in personal strength and collective size. I’m not sure from this book whether progress is either desired, possible, or necessary for Mexicans; Grey presents the book’s one Hispanic character as good and hard-working, but doesn’t indicate any path of improvement for her. Native Americans and African-Americans aren’t even mentioned, so the hope of progress probably doesn’t exist for them in Grey’s world. One ugly remark about “immigrants” strongly suggests that they (whoever they are) not only don’t deserve progress but actually hinder the progress of more deserving Americans. But in any case, Progress is available for people named Burch and Kilbourne (despite the almost certainly recent date of the immigration of the family with the latter name), and that Progress is best pursued in the American West.
The cities of the East, exemplified here by New York, pose big problems. There people seek darkness – the darkness of the movie theaters (the story takes place in the 1920s) and the darkness of the dance clubs. The films in those theaters make the boys who watch them grow up to be criminals and the girls who watch them vampires (the word used then for dangerous flirts, soon after shortened to “vamps”). Materialism runs rampant: men want nothing so much as they want cars, and they seem to want them only because they crave speed. The women of the East are slaves of fashion and will wear any revealing, salacious dress if fashion dictates that they must lower their moral standing by doing it. Jazz represents all these evils at once: the fast music, the promiscuous dress, the dark clubs. Many men don’t work; many just trade stocks and cut deals. To make matters worse, these loafers all probably found a way to stay out of the Great War instead of fighting with other Americans for America. The East spends money on entertainment but won’t pay teachers sufficiently to raise a new generation that can rise above the decadence of their tawdry parents. People in the East smoke; according to this book, anyway, hard-working ranchers in Arizona would never pollute their bodies with tobacco. One observation made over and over again is that city women tend not to bear children. And that problem brings Grey to his announcement of the greatest danger of all this bad behavior: the disappearance of the American race.
Grey’s West, on the other hand, cleanses those who visit. Early on, Carley climbs a knoll from which she can see a hundred miles in every direction. “Oh, America!” she exclaims. She never knew the immensity of the land, and any country that big and empty yearns to be filled and beckons to all who see it to the challenge. The West demands hard work and a renunciation of gross materialistic comfort, and those who answer this demand find their spirits growing. (It even seems to me that the “human spirit” in the book is a Hegelian world-spirit that needs the progress of humans in order to fulfill its search for self-knowledge.)
I struggled to sympathize with characters motivated by such a problematic vision. I certainly support the value of hard work, but I don’t believe a person has to engage in sheep-dipping in order to qualify as a hard worker. I also don’t believe that the men who went to the trenches of France were the only ones who served their country in World War I. I can’t condone everything that happens in a dark movie theater, and I can’t approve the message of every movie. But darkness and film themselves are not in themselves evils; I’ve received instruction, entertainment, rest, inspiration, and spiritual uplift from both on numerous occasions. But then the grand vistas of the West have also strengthened me many times, and I have to agree with Grey that they do so in a way nothing else does. I love my country enough to admit its terrible problems, but I can’t see that emptying New York City and transplanting all its former citizens in the Arizona desert will improve anything.